55 Ainslie Ave Braddon, ACT 2612
|Opening hours||Tue-Sat noon-2pm and 6pm-9.30pm|
|Features||Wheelchair access, Licensed, Vegetarian friendly, Outdoor seating|
|Prices||Expensive (mains over $40)|
|Seats||85, including 65 inside|
|Payments||eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard|
|Phone||(02) 6249 6050|
Sage has a lot going for it. With real Canberra heritage, growing from a small but always classy eatery hidden in the belly of the Gorman House Arts Centre, to now a shining restaurant, with a beautiful bar outside, it has grown with us.
On a cold Canberra night the place fills up fast with wine being decanted, very good bread and house-churned butter arriving quickly to tables, and almost everyone taking up the offer of an apple champagne cocktail to start.
A hum of efficient industry pervades the two smartly decorated rooms, and diners look ready to enjoy a good meal.
The Harrington brothers, who own the place, are an ambitious pair, with their own garden supplying much of the produce, and local touches everywhere, from the crockery to the wine list.
Chef Damien Grey is relatively new, replacing Clement Chauvin, who left last year.
The menu has two six-course degustation options ($95 or $145 with marching wines), one ''herbivore'' (technically meaning eating only plants, but we detect some dairy) and ''omnivore'' (eats everything). This will bring joy to hearts of vegetarians. Most Canberra restaurants have come a long way from the green-salad-and-don't-eat-fish days, but still choices are pretty limited.
We take the a la carte option, (two courses for $60, three for $75), and start with cauliflower soup, pork belly, and cured trout.
The cured ocean trout is the standout dish of the night, with a generous number of magnificent pink/orange batons served with a wafer of baked fennel, tiny horseradish meringues and little dots of good mayonnaise. Texture and freshness are the important elements here, and this dish has both. There is a lovely, slight resistance to the bite, and a subtlety of flavour that marks a contrast with both raw and smoked trout. This is a really good dish.
The soup arrives at the bottom of a wide dish. A good smooth-and-creamy texture, with lush cauliflower flavour, it has barely discernible hints of the advertised peanut, ginger, shallot, and curry oil, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Altogether the dish is pleasant, but really very small.
Spiced rum-braised pork belly comes with fine and well-cooked red cabbage, and rhubarb, as well as black pepper and chestnuts. The tang of the rhubarb is great, and the elements well balanced, the pork itself is well cooked and tender. This is a good dish.
A bottle of 2009 Valhalla shiraz from Rutherglen ($60) works well with most of the food, and is a really good drink, robust but not knock-your-socks-off, available only at the cellar door, our waiter tells us.
Narrowing down to a single choice is not easy, with a 17-page wine list, divided into new and old world. This is a serious document, containing loads of local Canberra district options and a good array of Australian, as well as a wide range of old-world offerings, predominantly from France. Beer and cider are available on tap, as well as in the bottle, 13 wines can be taken by the glass and 19 options are available in a half bottle.
The menu and wine list mark Sage out as a serious restaurant, and the service reinforces that impression. Staff are clearly very keen on what they do and ooze confidence and competence, which makes Sage a very pleasant place to eat.
Our mains include a good fillet of kingfish from Narooma, nicely crisped on the skin side, and very tender, with a tangy turtle bean cassoulet, spiced mayonnaise, speck, and thyme. It is good to see the increasing trend in Australian restaurants taking a broader view of fish, serving it with vibrant accompaniments, reminding us that the huge variety of fish is more than up for something other than mash and green beans on the side.
Pressed Braidwood lamb neck, is served with baba ghanoush, broadbeans and lamb bacon. Ingredients are all high quality, but there is a lack of life in this dish. The lamb itself is tender but lacking in flavour. Added salt helps.
Whisky-smoked beef is a good cut of beef, served with brown mushroom, mustard, port, and spinach. Unfortunately, it is a little cooler than it should be as it hits the table, and lacking in natural juices. Nevertheless, this is a pleasant dish.
A side dish of French peas ($10) come enriched with bacon, eschalot and cos lettuce, and are excellent. They may not have been absolutely essential, but this is a side dish not to miss. Not a single pea is left in the dish as the table is cleared.
Vanilla creme brulee is nicely flavoured, but a little dense. Crispy wild rice adds an interesting texture contrast, and the lively plum sorbet is terrific.
Sage is a classy place to eat, and the owners are to be congratulated for their ambitious approach to transforming a nice little gem into an elegant and innovative fine diner. But on this night not all of the food lives up to that ambition. At this level, you're looking for the excitement promised by the menu, the sparkling set up and the excellent service to be there in every dish.
Catriona Jackson is chief executive of peak lobby group Science and Technology Australia and a food writer.